App State rejects Shepard memoir as too ‘homophobic’?

Director denies charge, calls Judy Shepard a 'grief-stricken mother' without experience in LGBT issues

by Matt Comer  Editor  editor@goqnotes.com
Published: June 8, 2010 in News

BOONE, N.C. — The summer reading program committee at Appalachian State University has rejected a memoir by Judy Shepard, mother of slain, gay college student Matthew Shepard.

Kathy Staley, an archivist at App State’s Belk Library, wrote on her Facebook Monday that the committee had not chosen Shepard’s book, “The Meaning of Matthew: My Son’s Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed,” because some found it to contain “homophobic” passages.

Staley wrote, “Did anyone find Judy Shepard’s ‘The Meaning of Matthew’ homophobic? I didn’t but ASU’s summer reading group nixed it because two readers found it homophobic.”

At least one of those readers, whose identity hasn’t been divulged to qnotes, is a friend of Staley’s. She said they’d yet to respond to our request through her for comment.

Shepard’s memoir relates her life experience as mother to a gay son, his murder in 1998 and its aftermath and her work on behalf of LGBT equality and hate crimes legislation over the past decade. It was co-written with current Advocate editor-in-chief Jon Barrett.

App State’s summer reading program provides one book each summer to all incoming freshman. Students are encouraged to read the book and participate in several activities, including a panel discussion and speaking engagement with the author.

Dr. Emory Maiden, professor of English and director of the summer reading program, told qnotes via email that it would be a “huge oversimplification” to attribute the program’s book choices to any single issue. He said the book failed to meet the program’s several criteria.

He said the committee had a “long and…reasonable discussion” regarding the book but said “one of the dominant concerns [was] whether this writer — Matthew’s mother — was the best spokesperson to bring to campus on this issue — most people thought not — there were better voices to be heard.”

He wrote: “[C]ommittee members wondered aloud about how her book would work as a discussion of the oppression of and attacks on those who are perceived to be ‘Other’ — as a clear starting point for a discussion of different life styles and sexual identity, but would also be a gateway into the broader concerns for hate crimes and social justice. So, our discussion was not focused on a single issue, but several — and finally was about how the book might develop and engage a broad readership — and that is as it should be for consideration for a book the whole University community would read.”

Maiden also said he wasn’t aware that anyone in particular thought the book to be homophobic but that there were “concerns that a grief-stricken mother had gotten into print on a subject that she neither wholly understand nor have (sic) a broad experience with.”

After follow-up, Maiden further explained: “[A]s powerful personally as some speakers are — esp (sic) as catalysts for consciousness raising and political action — their writing —managing prose and narratives — sometimes doesn’t have the same impact — if we were a campus lecture series, there may be different concerns in play — but we think of ourselves as first and foremost as a literacy program grounded in notions about what a book is and ought to be — and as I said earlier, our conversations on ['Meaning of Matthew'] were about the book — not the author, nor her related activities.”

In summary, Maiden said the book “did not work well for our program” and that it was removed from their discussions and “placed…alongside other ‘good’ books that just didn’t seem to be well-suited for our program for a variety of reasons.”

The committee eventually chose “Mudbound” by Hillary Jordan for this year’s program. Appalachian State University’s summer reading program has operated since 1997. Among its selections has been “Three Cups of Tea,” “The Glass Castle,” “Nickel and Dimed” and “Freakonomics.”

Other University of North Carolina (UNC) System schools also have summer reading programs, and they are no stranger to controversy. In 2002, officials at UNC-Chapel Hill came under fire for their controversial book selection, “Approaching the Quran.” Opponents of the book choice eventually filed suit against the school, claiming UNC-Chapel Hill infringed upon students’ First Amendment religious freedoms by requiring them to read about Islam and its holy texts.